The Art of The Barbecue

Although the summer appears to have ended, I thought I would deal with something that provides a perfect opportunity to marry good food and wine: the barbecue.
24 May 2006


Although the summer appears to have ended, I thought I would deal with something that provides a perfect opportunity to marry good food and wine: the barbecue. What we mostly remember are alcohol fuelled, sun kissed days with our friends. The food on the whole is pretty ordinary, the standard fare being a variety of dried out, blackened sausages, burgers which consist of mostly bread, the dreaded vegetarian alternatives and meat off cuts. The worst are pre-marinated supermarket gloops with such exotic names as "honey, lime and ginger glazed chicken". By necessity these are often last minute affairs and we compensate for lack of quality with vast quantity (another example of our increasing Americanisation).

It doesn't have to be this way! By following a few basics barbecues can become fantastic fun AND provide great food.

The first pre-requisite is a decent barbecue. Aficionados will tell you the Weber kettledrum is the gold standard. Tedious arguments about the respective merits of gas vs. coal abound. In my experience although good gas barbecues are more user-friendly, these never quite match "coal kettles" for the unique flavors they impart on food. The other essentials are to source good quality raw materials and choose strong and sympathetic flavours but keep them simple. At two recent barbecues we had a near perfect whole leg of lamb which had been stuffed higgledy-piggledy with a mixture of bashed medjool dates, cumin and coriander seed and plenty of garlic mixed with good olive oil. The surface was smeared with preserved lemons mixed with cumin seed, salt and black pepper. This acquired fantastic smoky North African flavours with a slow roast over a bed of celery. Even more unique was a "stiff fresh" big turbot I lovingly brought back from Cornwall. We simply clipped its fins, placed it on a bed of sliced potatoes and fish stock, then barbecued it with plenty of slices of herb butter on top. The chunky, pale and flavorful flesh of the turbot took on the barbecue flavors as well as the herb butter and was utterly gorgeous.

This may sound like "posh-nosh" but was quite simple to prepare, even after work, mid-week! Speaking of turbot reminds me of my recent "surfing" trip to Padstow. We ate at Rick Stein's, which was as good as ever, although my last meal there on Sept 11th 2001 became memorable for all the wrong reasons. A poached hunk of skate with oodles of Moroccan flavours was particularly enjoyable, accompanied by a Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 1999 which was chock full of lime blossom, mango, hints of petrol (a compliment, really!) and racy acidity.

If you go to this lovely area though, please go to the Beach Hut at Watergate Bay. Run by a bunch of "extreme sport" dudes, the location is unbelievable, with views that would do California proud. More amazingly the food, whilst unpretentious, concentrates on prime seafood which has just stopped breathing and is consistently excellent. The service is relaxed and the prices very fair, although the wine list could do with a little beefing up. This is one of the best non-kept secrets of foodie Britain and daily flights from Stansted to Newquay bring it within range of long weekends...

So to barbecue wines...

La Spinetta Bricco Quaglia Moscato d'Asti 2001. Lovely grapey overripe fruit flavors with gentle froth and sweetness. Great aperitif or fruit salad wine (£8.00 in Noel Young, Cambridge. If you want a cheaper alternative Villa Jolanda from Tesco (£3.00 this month) is not bad).

'Vixen' Fox Creek NV. The ultimate barbecue wine. Creamy black cherry with spice and bubbles! Shiraz with bubbles? Stop being a snob and try it! (£11.00 in Noel Young, Cambridge).

Bollinger NV. My favourite champaign. Yeasty and meaty stuff with good acidity. Widely available at £22-26.

Soave Classico 2001 Pieropan. Not like your usual sugar and vinegar water Soave. Full of apricot and overripe melon, unctuous body and no acidity so not for keeping (around £8.50 Noel Young, Cambridge - pricey but well worth it).

Kleos Luigi Maffini 2000. Yummy smoky, blackberry jam and raisins. Classic bitter-sweet Italian flavors with plenty of guts to last. (£9.49 in Noel Young, Cambridge).

Tower Estate Shiraz 1999 Barossa and Hunter Valley. Who says vintages and regions don't matter in Oz? Both from the same estate but one is full on, with lots of spicy black cherry and oak while the other is more refined, leathery and cassis dominated. Both are good value at £12-13 from Rick Stein's deli.


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